Disney’s The Little Mermaid: Part of a Diverse World?

A great controversy has risen with Disney casting Halle Bailey as Ariel in the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid.

I think many of us had the same first thought:

Halle Berry? Isn’t she too old?

halle berry

Then, I squinted at the screen and realized it was Halle Bailey, leading to my second thought:

Who is that? And can she sing?

The answer to the that most important second question is yes:

Like most, I was surprised that she’s not a redhead and is not as white as I am (my skin is so pale I could use it like a mirror to reflect the sun if I ever was lost in the wilderness).

Disney Finds 'Little Mermaid' Star in Singer Halle Bailey | Hollywood Reporter

Credit: Hollywood Reporter (click for link)

And I think that’s cool and a great choice.

Here’s why:

1. It’s a bold idea after a series of safe choices for the Disney live-action remakes.

I would describe the recent live-action remakes – Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, and The Jungle Book – as nice. They are pleasant retellings with some technical wizardry. Cinderella actually differs the most from the animated film and yet feels more traditional. Of the three, I think The Jungle Book pushes the envelope the most, but that is more due to making us believe CG animated animals are real. I haven’t yet seen Dumbo and Aladdin yet, so can’t speak to those.

This casting choice shows a break from tradition. Are we looking for a carbon copy of a story we’ve watched a thousand times or something that pays homage while bringing something fresh and new?

2. Lin Manuel Miranda is working on music for the film.

The busiest man in the entertainment industry is working on music for the film. Given his work for Hamilton (which I saw live earlier this year and it is everything I hoped for and more) and Moana and In the Heights, we can expect a more R&B / Pop feeling to some of the music. Halle Bailey’s voice would fit well with that style.

3. Have you seen the 90’s TV adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella?

(If not, go watch this charming fairy tale. Thanks YouTube).

This gem of a movie updates some of the songs with more modern beats and uses colorblind casting –  the prince (Paolo Montalbán) is Asian while the king (Victor Garber) is white and queen (Whoopi Goldberg) is black.

And our princess?

Is played by Brandy, a Black R&B singer who happens to get a peak-shape Whitney Houston as her Fairy Godmother.

Not to mention the stepmother (the always incredible Bernadette Peters) is white while the stepsisters (Veanne Cox and Natalie Desselle) are white and black.

And their ethnicities and skin colors don’t matter for the entire story. We still swoon at the prince (I mean, look at this Prince? Isn’t he neat? Wouldn’t you say his charm is complete? Wouldn’t you say he’s a prince who has, well everything?). We believe him and Cinderella as they fall in love and never question why the prince, king, and queen don’t match hair, eye, and skin colors.

Why does this work?

Because it’s a good story with good characters.

And that transcends everything.

But, then, we have the wilds of the internet.

While many are intrigued and others are celebrating, many who grew up loving the Little Mermaid are having a hard time letting go of their image of the redheaded mermaid based on a Dutch Fairy Tale.

However well-meaning they may be, their responses sound like Jenna Maroney* on 30 Rock in the exchange below:

Tracey: But I know you’re all secretly mad because we finally have a Black Disney princess.

Jenna: You know, there actually hasn’t been a white princess since 1991.

Pete: Mulan, Pocahontas, Jasmine… Yeah she’s right.

Jenna: There are little blonde girls in this country who have no idea they can be beautiful.

*If you haven’t seen 30 Rock, just note you never want to sound like Jenna Maroney.

I get where these people are coming from. Change is hard and something we loved as a child, like The Little Mermaid, has a special place.

It’s the original Star Wars of 90’s era Disney princess movies (Star Wars reference worked in – check).

It’s the movie we grew up watching a thousand times. It’s the movie that raised the bar for animated musical movies, set the standard, and led to many girls using forks as hairbrushes.

Ariel is an iconic image.

So iconic, that Hipster Ariel is a major meme.

hipster ariel - Google Search

If Disney had cast a blonde or brunette and not dyed the actress’s hair, I think there would have been a similar backlash.

Why is inclusion and diversity is important?

Writing diversity is challenging.

The first mental image readers have of a character is of them as white unless their name is from a non-English language. Rodriguez = Latino. Yao = Asian. Achebe = African. Abdal = Arabic.

And each of these represent a continent or more of different countries, histories, nations, and cultures that are bundled together under the term “non-white”. I had to look up African and Arabic last names – I even made up the Arabic last name to see if anyone would notice.

It takes work to change the norm.

In my series, The Pippington Tales, the majority of the cast of characters is white, so I am pushing myself break that default in my own mind and make the world more diverse.

This is why in The Lady and the Frog I added the country of Castallar to bring in a more Spanish language influence and have the ability to add Latino characters later in the series. Eventually, I hope to add a Latino Rapunzel who must battle pirates. In The Matchgirl and the Magician, the father of the main character, and the leading man, is Rompell, who is from a middle east inspired country.

But, these are just small steps. I have a long way to go to build a world as diverse as the real one.

So, I think it’s great that Disney has made a bold choice and I would love to see future fantasy and fairy tale movies that focus more on the story than on the appearance of their characters.

Readers:

  1. What do you think of Disney’s choice to play The Little Mermaid?
  2. What is your favorite example of a great story with diverse characters that doesn’t focus on “hey, look how diverse this cast is!”?
  3. Who do you want to see as Prince Eric?

9 thoughts on “Disney’s The Little Mermaid: Part of a Diverse World?

  1. I confess to the Halle Berry confusion. There goes my credentials for being cool. (Is it “cool” these days? Don’t even know that.)

    I’m off on a little project of my own these days, comparing episodes of the old “Night Gallery” TV series with the short stories over half of them were based upon. You know what I’ve been learning? There is definitely more than one way to tell a tale successfully. A screenplay can be faithful to a story while still making major changes in it.

    And so it can be with “The Little Mermaid.” Ms. Bailey? If she does a great job, and the screenwriters and director and everyone else backs her up, great. Millions of black girls will fall in love with her and identify with her. So will millions of white girls. Probably so will millions of girl mermaids, though they are hard to track down for opinion surveys. And, psst, so will at least thousands of boys. And if Ms. Bailey fails? It won’t be because she’s black.

    Jack Sparrow aside, movies about pirates are getting more diverse because . . . well, because in history they actually were. No way a pirate ship in the Caribbean or Indian Ocean had a lily-white crew, yet in older movies and stories they often do.

  2. Interesting post – and love the 30 Rock reference! Cracked me up.

    Well, so here’s an interesting point unrelated to The Little Mermaid casting, but related at the same time.

    The casting of Hermione as a black woman in Harry Potter in the Cursed Child.

    (Internet don’t yell at me)

    I did have a problem with it and ONLY because the rest of the cast looked EXACTLY like their characters in the movie. It was almost scary. Even the adult Harry Potter was slightly short like Ratcliffe.

    Which is what I love about the colorblind casting for the Rodgers & Hammerstein Cinderella (yes, I saw it, I was a devoted Brandy fan back in the day…gosh, what the heck happened to her?). I feel like if you’re going the diversity route with something that EVERYONE has an entirely different image in their head of (like red-headed Ariel or Emma Watson as Hermione) – then jump all the way in. Don’t stick in one toe. So, yes, it bothered me when I saw Hermione in the Cursed Child as the only person they changed but because it was so jarring when everyone else looked like their character from the movie. And Rowling claims she never described Hermione in the books so she could be black BUTTTT (hear me out) whenever there IS a black character in the Harry Potter novels, Rowling makes sure to make that clear in the description of them. Ergo, we default to white when we read novels with characters unless explicitly told otherwise (bringing in your point re: your work on The Pippington Tales).

    So, I’m hoping they pull a colorblind casting and make it as diverse as possible because from my experience, when they only change one character and in this case only change Ariel, then it’s a lot harder to swim along with.

    Okay, don’t yell at me. My whole thing on Hermione didn’t go down well with some friends I talked about it with so I’m kind of scared of even typing that.

    • I actually find your point valid – Theater is more likely to do blind casting than film and television – which means Ron and Harry could have been Latino or Asian or Middle Eastern in appearance. So, great that they cast a woman of color, but is it just a token?

      And, I think a fully diverse cast would be great.

  3. I hear all this noise, and it’s just silly. This is a character in a fairy tale. Which, by the way, was NOT a traditional fairy tale. Hans Christian Andersen wrote it all on his own. He was so brilliant that several of his stories became canon: The Ugly Duckling, The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Steadfast Tin Soldier.

    The thing with these beloved stories is that they get re-told. Disney’s version was a re-telling. There is nothing in the Andersen about the mermaid’s name being Ariel or having a friend who’s a crab or the sea witch being an octopus-centaur… thing. If they want to re-tell it again in a different way, they can do that. And anybody else in the world can do their own re-telling in their own way. ANYONE can re-tell a fairy tale.

    Besides which — the character is a mermaid. A mythological being from many, many tales, not just Andersen’s. There’s nothing to say she has to be red-haired or white-skinned or anything we would even recognize as human. They could make her look like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and it would still fit the mythology.

    • The fun of retellings is breaking from the original while paying homage. And a slightly more monstrous looking mermaid might be a fun version as well.

      “I’d fall in love with you, but your gills are distracting.”

  4. I adored that 90s version of Cinderella. It seems to me that that kind of “color blind” casting is more common in stage productions? But I like it. And I’m looking forward to seeing Halle as Ariel, too.

    • Color blind casting is more common in theater. I think there’s more freedom with how characters look because you don’t have a camera doing close-ups.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.